James Burns

James Burns

Improv Vs Stand Up

In May Paul Merton said in an interview with 'The Times' this week that he doesn’t want to do stand-up anymore because of the drunken crowds, preferring instead to focus on improvisational comedy.

This got me to thinking… if someone had a gun to my head (which they don’t. I’m fine. I’m eating toast.) which one would I choose? If I had to give up either stand up or improvisation forever, which one would I go with?

Mr. Merton describes improvisation as a way to break out of the "straight jacket performances" of stand up. Which I suppose I understand. There is something wild and daft about improv that means an audience will follow you into the most bizarre and obscure places. But I can’t say that I have ever felt particularly restrained by stand up. On the contrary, coming from an acting background, as I did, I have always found it incredibly freeing.

But if we are really talking about the pros of improv then for me, far and away the best thing about it is the camaraderie you get between players in the group. Very few things on earth, my friends, are better than getting that big laugh while working with your mates on stage. The unexplained synchronicity between improvisers who are doing their job well and taking an audience on a journey involving absolutely anything and often utterly peculiar circumstances is the stuff of dreams.

Ah but stand up. That’s pretty cool too. Just you, a microphone and a really bright light in your face. What could be more exciting, dangerous, wonderful?!

But then there is the matter that Paul Merton refers to – the drunken audience member.

The first thing to say is that there is a big difference between a drunk audience and an audience who just want to drink and not watch comedy. The first are often the best you can hope for, the second can be an absolute ball ache.

Most comedians will tell you of a wonderful day when they managed to convert a hostile crowd, and crikey, that’s a fabulous feeling. But in all likelihood they will also have a horror story about performing somewhere where the stage was a chair you had to climb up on, there was a gallon of feedback on the mic and Andy Murray was playing the Wimbledon final at the other end of the room. And the beer was free. There’s very little winning in a gig like that…

The other thing is that there are just some people who want to watch the world burn. Some people go to see comedy just to be a prick about it. Piteous souls who lack the courage to get up on stage themselves, preferring instead to impress their buddies by criticizing and lampooning those who do.

Some comedians will tell you to suck it up – that if you can’t play the room then you aren’t doing your job properly. Find the funny. And to some extent I guess I agree. But in general I think I tend to take a rather more laid back approach. Sometimes, it just isn’t your crowd. You win some, you lose some. As long as you are winning 95% of the time, that’s fine. And most importantly, before anything else, before money, before a proper stage, before there is no sport going on in the room, as long as you still love it. And I do. Because those nights when you do turn the room, when the drunk crowd are yours. Nothing beats it.

Lucy Frederick

If, like Paul Merton, your heart belongs to improv, you can see the Funny Women Players celebrate 25 years of WomanKind Worldwide with A Journey to Enlightenment on Tuesday 21st October. For more information click here! 

Or if you fancy trying your hand at improvisation join the Players at their introductory workshop on Saturday 18th October here!

Pictured: Lucy Frederick, Paul Merton and the Funny Women Players


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